Part of the joy of cooking, for me, is the ability to be able to share it with others. Food tastes better when you are in the company of others. Eating is enjoyable, but dining is cherished.
And so, today, I bring you a dish that is designed for celebratory sharing. Big, bold, and beautiful, It is meant to be served to friends or family, and magically takes on a life of its own based on who is preparing it. Able to be altered to suit any group’s dietary needs, it is perfect for parties, not only in its awe-inspiring appearance, but also because you can do a lot of the prep in advance.
If you hadn’t already figured it out by the post title…today, we are preparing PAELLA! [Totally more fun to say with an exclamation point behind it. Not pronounced like “pile ‘a” (rice?) but like an exchange between a Canadian and German in a pie shop: “Pie?” “Eh?” “Yah!”]
–Will you quit it with the Spanish recipes, Sarah? Can’t we try something different.
–No, no we cannot.
I first learned how to make paella when I was studying at the summer language institute at Middlebury two years ago. My favorite professor was from coastal Spain, and during one of the optional cooking classes (that you know I loved), he instructed us on paella creation.
Traditionally, paella is made in a special, very large, round pan,* and cooked over a grill or open flame so that the heat can transfer evenly to all parts of the dish. Each family has their own ‘spin’ or twist, based on the local ingredients or their family’s tastes and preferences. Jorge (my professor) said the paella that we (Americans) request, with chicken and sausage, is not typical Spanish. Being from the coast, he made us an entirely seafood-based paella, with calamari rings, shrimp, and scallops. [He was a bit limited by the fact that we were in central Vermont in the middle of July, and not on the coast of Spain.]
*My mom actually gifted me a beautiful paella pan, which, unfortunately, ended up somewhere back in Pennsylvania and not in my car for the move to Austin. I cursed my lack of foresight, but how was I to know I was suddenly going to be seized by my Spanish alter-ego when I arrived in Texas?
Since last night was my turn to host Book Club [during which we have yet to actually discuss a book…at least one we are all communally reading], I was in charge of the main course for dinner. As you can probably tell, this was my paella moment. It was dear Ximena’s last Book Club before heading off to study Spanish literature, and what is more Spanish than paella?
I have collected a number of paella recipes over the years…and finally narrowed it down to four from which to draw my inspiration: Cooking Light‘s Seafood Paella and Chicken & Shrimp Paella, Food Network Magazine‘s Vegetable Paella [which I really just looked at and thought, “How beautiful,” then moved on], and, my favorite solely because of its name, Eating Well‘s Paella Rapida.
Don’t be scared by what sounds like a lot of ingredients. Because this is The Smart Kitchen, I wanted to make this dish as easy and economical as possible, while also remaining healthy and allowing room for creativity. You can mix and match ingredients as you like. Because we have a chicken allergy in the group, I went with a (predominantly shrimp) seafood paella. [Besides, I love me some shrimps. And yes, I meant to put an s at the end of the shrimp.]
Also, when I made it, I really had no clue what I was doing. It turned out great. Don’t be afraid.
First of all, you’ll want to obtain 2 cups of Arborio rice. [This recipe will be enough to feed 8 people.] You might be wondering why I didn’t go with the healthier short-grain brown rice. Well, just as I notoriously fail at making omelettes, I also tend to have a miserable track record when it comes to rice. Brown rice can be finicky. Arborio rice just sucks up liquid without a second thought. When feeding a crowd, you don’t have time to deal with paella panic.
You will also need 1 can of diced tomatoes, and 4 cups of vegetable broth (you can use chicken or seafood stock/broth if you would like).
You will need an onion (I chose a sweet Walla Walla*), as well as a red bell pepper.
*Does anyone else always think of Tonya from The Real World when you see these at the g store?
And two cloves of garlic, minced. [Go ahead and used pre-minced…saves on prep work.]
You will need some basic spices: black pepper, salt, paprika, crushed red pepper…
…and some extra seasonings for the final presentation: lemon and flat-leaf parsley.
Finally, the key to all paella (and the reason most people don’t make it, because it is a rather expensive spice): saffron!
Yes, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice by weight, mainly due to the fact that it requires so many hours of labor for its harvesting. But a pinch goes such a long way…You can find it in bulk bins at specialty stores, which might cut the cost. I would say go ahead and make paella without it. In my mind, it won’t be paella, but it will be a delicious rice dish regardless.
Now comes the creative part…choosing your “add-ins.” You might want to go with chicken or sausage, in the Americanized version of paella…I was sticking to shrimp (1 1/2 lbs.)
…as well as smoked mussels.
[I stole this idea from the Eating Well recipe, and it was a great one! Cost efficient in that you get more bang for your buck, since you aren’t paying for the shells…it might be less pretty, but in the end, you get a nice smokiness that is worth the less-than-perfect presentation.]
I also chose to use artichoke hearts (about 4 hearts, quartered)…
…1/2 cup chopped, jarred roasted red peppers (I can’t get enough of red peppers, apparently)…
…and thawed frozen peas! (1 cup)
Because I wanted to get a lot of prep work out of the way, I went ahead and diced up the half of the onion and the bell pepper (1 cup each) in the afternoon,
…and diced up the artichoke hearts.
Put everything into prep storage bowls (look Mom, I’m finally using them!)…
First, cook up your proteins. [If you are using chicken or sausage, cook those now.] Heat a wee bit of olive oil in a LARGE pan, and quickly saute your shrimp until just done.
See how they turn pinkish and curl up? Take them off the heat right when that happens.
Quickly rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking process. [They will cook a little more at the end, before serving…and no one wants tough shrimp. Unless of course you are training a prize-fighting shrimp boxer or something.]
In the same pan, add a little more olive oil, and saute the garlic, onion, and red bell pepper until tender.
If the pan gets dry, go ahead and add a little of your vegetable broth.
At this point you’ll also want to add your basic spices (the salt, pepper, paprika). Don’t worry about the ‘crust’ that starts to form on the bottom. This means we’re going to have loads of flavor.
Add the can of diced tomatoes, undrained, as well as a pinch or two of saffron threads.
Once that has come to a simmer, stir in 2 cups of Arborio rice.
Cook for about 1-2 minutes, and then add your vegetable broth. [This is why you need a big pan.]
Bring that to a simmer, and then cover. You might have to get creative, as I did, if you realize you don’t have a lid big enough for your pan. Cookie sheets work nicely.
Here is the most important piece of paella wisdom I remember: DON’T STIR THE PAELLA! [Of course, I said this as I was stirring it.] Cover it up, let it simmer for about 20 minutes, and then check on the progress. Gently pull from the side, and if all the liquid has observed, move on to the next step. Otherwise, give it another 5 or 10 minutes.
Why don’t you want to stir it? Well, as I learned from either Padma or Tom on Top Chef at some point, the key to a good paella is apparently the “crust” that forms on the bottom of the pan as you cook it. There is a crucial different between burning and crisping however…
Once the liquid has been absorbed, stir in the peas…[When you stir in the add-ins, don’t pull the crust up from the bottom of the pan!]
…the artichoke hearts…
…the shrimp and smoked mussels…
…and sprinkle on the diced roasted red peppers.
If you have an oven-proof pan, awesome. If not, wrap some aluminum foil around the handle. Pop the pan into the oven at 350 degrees for 5-10 minutes, just until everything is heated through nicely.
Pull out your paella, sprinkle it with parsley, and squeeze a little lemon juice around the pan. Bravo! You are ready to eat.
On the side I served a simple salad of mixed greens, raw diced yellow squash (thank you, Cara!), chopped sundried tomatoes, and capers. [The oil from the tomatoes and the vinegar from the capers created its own dressing.]
1 cup diced sweet onion
1 cup diced bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. each black pepper, salt, paprika, and crushed red pepper
Pinch of saffron threads
1 14.5 oz-can of diced tomatoes
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup thawed frozen peas
1 cup quartered or chopped artichoke hearts
1 tin (3.8 oz) smoked mussels
1/2 cup diced roasted red peppers
Flat-leaf parsley & lemon, for serving
1. Saute shrimp (or other protein) in a little olive oil in a very large pan. Remove from heat when just cooked (turned pink and curled up), and immediately rinse with cold water. Set aside.
2. In the same pan, add another teaspoon or so of olive oil, and saute garlic, onion, and red bell pepper over medium heat.
3. Add black pepper, salt, paprika, and crushed red pepper.
4. Once onion and pepper are soft, add canned diced tomatoes and saffron. Bring to a simmer and cook 1-2 minutes.
5. Stir in Arborio rice. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and cook for 20 minutes.
6. After 20 minutes, pull a little of the rice from the side of the pan to check if liquid has been absorbed. Cook at 5-minute increments until all liquid is gone from pan. [Taste test rice if necessary.]
7. Stir in the peas, artichoke hearts, mussels, and shrimp, being careful not to pull up the crust of rice that has formed on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the roasted red peppers over the top of the paella.
8. Bake paella in a 350 degree oven for 5-10 minutes, just until shrimp are heated through.
9. Remove pan from oven, sprinkle paella with chopped parsley and lemon juice.
10. Serve with a smile.